Monday, March 25, 2013

Segregated 1960s Inspired Augusta Scattergood's 'Glory Be'

Sometimes characters linger with us long after we've closed the covers of their books and put them back on the shelf. That's what happened to me with Augusta Scattergood's memorable protagonist Gloriana June Hemphill, or Glory, as she's known to everybody in her small Mississippi town.

A former librarian (she reports to have been a fifth-grade library monitor when she heard her calling), blogger, and children's book reviewer, Augusta has devoted her career to getting good books into the hands of young readers. Glory Be (Scholastic, 2012) is her debut novel. And with it, Augusta taps real-life experiences of growing up in small-town Mississippi during the 1960s, creating a captivating middle-grade story that some have called The Help for kids.

Set in 1964 during "Freedom Summer," an effort by civil rights organizations to register African American voters across Mississippi, Glory Be tells the story of 11-year-old Glory, who is counting down the days until she can celebrate her birthday at the local swimming pool. But everything is different this year, with her older sister crazy for Elvis and a new boy in town. And things are getting more complicated with her best friend, Frankie. When the swimming pool is closed for "repairs," Glory doesn't believe it. What follows is a tale of family and growing up in a world that isn't always fair.

Question: You're a Southerner who grew up during the tumultuous Freedom Summer of 1964, when things were changing across the nation but particularly in Mississippi and the Deep South. How much did your experience play into Glory Be

Augusta Scattergood: I've always been intrigued by what happened in our country in the '60s and have read a lot about it. But when we were Glory's age, neither I nor any of my friends who lived in small towns in the South were brave enough to speak up like she did. We were pretty much oblivious to the situation. Although we lived in a very segregated world, 11-year-old girls didn't ask many questions then.

In the '60s, we didn't live under a 24-7 newsfeed!

While I worked in a public library under pressure to close and in schools under federal order to desegregate in the late 1960s and early 1970s, not many of Glory's actual experiences in the book came from my own memory.

Recently a fifth-grade boy asked me about "Sixties culture" and how did I use that in my book? (Pretty good question for an 11-year-old!) Now that comes right from my own memory. The Pep Squad, the football, the hair, the clothes, and the music – that part of the book I lived and breathed!

Q: Writers are told to "write what you know." But sometimes when we tackle subjects that are so well-known to us, so dear to our hearts, the burden of getting it right is tremendous. How did it feel writing Glory Be? Did you feel pressure to get it right, or did the process come naturally for you?

AS: I felt a lot of pressure! I hope I got it right. But then again, getting it right is pretty subjective, isn't it?

I especially wanted to write something that would be accessible to younger readers. Many books set in this time and place are not so easily read, discussed and eventually, I hope, understood by younger middle-grade readers.

Q: Glory is a typical almost-12-year-old whose primary concern is making sure the swimming pool is open for her annual birthday party. I think Glory Be succeeds because of this approach – keeping the issues so personal and so appropriate for a child reader to relate to and connect with. Was it hard finding the right angle into your greater idea for Glory Be?

AS: All along, I knew that part of the story. Having read and heard about pools closing, not just in the South but all over the country, I wanted Glory to worry about what might happen to her pool.  And I always envisioned her with an older sister who was pulling away, as a preacher's kid who had the community's eyes constantly watching her, and being cared for by someone she loved.

But, alarmingly, when I first put pen to paper, I thought I was writing a short story about a wedding planner babysitting two bratty sisters who sneaked and played their game of Junk Poker. It got very convoluted. Pretty soon, I  realized I didn't know how to nor did I want to write for grownups!

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Glory Be?

AS: One of the best things about moving from one side of the library shelf to the other, from all my years as a school librarian to seeing kids' and teachers' reactions to my book. Remarkable pictures of a book project in Mississippi and book trailers done by a class in Ohio amaze and delight me. They've really taken Glory Be to heart. That's really all I ask. That kids who read the novel not only learn a little, ask a few more questions, and smile at some parts. Actually, that's quite a bit to ask!

Q: What do you hope to achieve with your writing? And what will we see next from you?

AS: I love writing for middle-grade readers, their teachers and parents, and the generation who lived in the '60s. One thing I always do is remind young readers to talk to that generation. I hope my books help make connections.

Next up? My second middle-grade comes from Scholastic in the fall of 2014. My amazing editor and I are working hard on revisions right now. And I'm beginning to tinker with a third manuscript, also historical, set in the South. About all I can tell you with certainty is that the narrator is a girl named Azalea. And she has friends and family, and enemies. Always need those enemies!

I'm not too great at talking about my stories until I hold the actual book in my hand. Then you can't shut me up.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Marianne Malone Has the Magic Touch With '68 Rooms' Series

Anyone who has been to the Art Institute of Chicago has probably seen – if not fallen in love with – the Thorne Rooms. A collection of 68 unbelievably realistic miniature rooms, they are designed to showcase furniture and styles of various eras in Europe and the United States. When touring this exhibit, it's hard not to wonder what it would be like to walk through this dollhouse-size world. Author Marianne Malone wondered the same thing, and her debut middle-grade novel The Sixty-Eight Rooms is a fantasy adventure set in these very spaces.

The Sixty-Eight Rooms (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2010) was an instant hit with readers and was named a Chicago Public Library Best of the Best Book and a Parent's Choice Recommended Winner. She followed it up with the sequel Stealing Magic in 2012. And coming this May, she releases the third in the series, The Pirate's Coin. In each book, sixth-graders Ruthie Stewart and Jack Tucker are up for the adventures the Thorne Rooms – and a little magic – have in store.

One of the Thorne Rooms miniatures
Question: What inspired you to set your stories in the Thorne Rooms?

Marianne Malone: I grew up in Chicago (born in Hyde Park, we moved to the suburbs when I was little), and I can’t remember a time that I didn’t know of and love the Thorne Rooms. I am not alone in this. Since The Sixty-Eight Rooms came out, I’ve met people who have had the same experience.  The rooms are enchanting and unique in the world. When I visit the rooms, I see stories unfolding in each room, and when I was a child I wanted to be in them in the worst way. I am writing the books that I would have devoured as a 10-year-old. But you don’t need to have seen the Thorne Rooms in person; anyone who has had a small fort, or a dollhouse, or any kind of secret place can understand the impulse. (And of course, they can see all of the rooms beautifully photographed on the Art Institute website).

One of the Thorne Rooms miniatures
When I had the idea and started writing, I was inspired by Mrs. Thorne herself. Imagine having the tenacity to stick with such an unusual project! She actually made 100 rooms, only 68 of which are in the Art Institute. But it was quite an obsession, which she carried out with such perfection.

Q: How much fun has it been to write each of these books? And will there be more?

MM: I am having so much fun writing these books! The process pulls together my love of the rooms, my love of art history (my college major), and my love of teaching. My love of writing is newfound, as I always considered myself a visual artist. But I’ve discovered that I approach writing from a visual perspective; the stories come to me as images, like movies. I’ve enjoyed the editing process as well, taking the rough cut and polishing and improving it until the prose is the way I want it, and the pace flows from fast to slow and back again in just the right proportions.

Q: Time travel can be tricky to write. And Ruthie and Jack make trips to periods like 1937 Paris, 19th-century South Carolina, as well as 1753 Cape Cod. How did you handle the historical aspects of your story as well as the sci-fi?

MM: Yes! Time travel can be very tricky. I have on occasion given myself headaches trying to keep the details straight with regard to how the time travel works in my stories. I have made a list of rules – about the magic and the time travel – and it’s important to follow them. Young readers will believe the story if the logic of the magic is consistent. I can invent any sort of magic that I want, but I can’t break my own rules.

I do a lot of research to make sure that the historical facts in the books are accurate. It’s wonderful when I have sent Ruthie and Jack to a certain time in history and it just happens to coincide with something unexpected and exciting. In Stealing Magic, for instance, they go back in time to Paris 1937, mid–summer, during the World’s Fair. And then I discovered that Amelia Earhart took her fateful flight at exactly the same time. I had to include that!

Q: It's great to remind kids (and adults) to look for the magic in everyday life. What do you hope kids take away from your stories?

MM: I hope that kids (and adults) read the books first for enjoyment, for that wonderful feeling of being swept off your feet by a story. I think the magic helps because you can’t recreate that in your real life (I haven’t figured out how to, anyway!).

Second, I hope that my books open the doors to museums for readers who might not be familiar with or comfortable in them. My favorite fan mail has come from parents who say that after reading my books, their son or daughter insisted they go to the Art Institute! I do a lot of school visits, and I like to tell students that they don’t have to like everything in a museum, just find the one thing that speaks to them. I guarantee that they will find that something if they look, and it might even be something that changes their life.

Third, I hope that I’ve snuck in just enough history that readers have an urge to learn a little more. I think art history is a wonderful way to introduce anyone to history; any given object can tell a story of where it came from, whose life it was a part of (and it doesn’t have to be "high" art found in a museum – family memorabilia is a great way to start). That is rather magical to me and a little bit like time travel.

Q: What's ahead for you, and for Ruthie and Jack?

MM: The third book in the series will be out in May, The Pirate’s Coin. I’m so excited about this one. In each book, the danger and the complications of time travel have become more consequential for Ruthie and Jack. Plus, there is a pirate!

And as I write this, I am editing the fourth book (still working on the title!), but I am loving this story, too. Just a couple of hints: they not only visit New York City, but Ruthie and Jack stumble upon an old mystery that they solve by going back to early 18th century England.

As for me, I have several ideas for other books I’d like to write both for the middle-grade audience and perhaps slightly younger. I’d really love to try my hand at combining my own story and artwork in a book as well.

Monday, March 11, 2013

When Irish Eyes are Reading: Tomie dePaola's St. Pat's Books

We might as well go ahead and declare Tomie dePaola a national treasure. He's been writing for children for more than 40 years now, illustrating about 250 books and authoring about 100 of them. His best-known titles are the 11 books in the Strega Nona series, for which he won a Caldecott Honor, and the 26 Fairmount Avenue series, for which he won a Newbery Honor. Aside from being able to boast that he's sold more than 15 million books, Tomie can also claim a wall full of accolades.

His work has earned him a Smithson Medal from the Smithsonian Institution, and in 1999, he was honored with a Living Treasure Award from New Hampshire's governor. And the biggie to beat all biggies, in 2011 he was given the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for his "substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children."

His most recent titles, Let the Whole Earth Sing Praise (Putnam) and Strega Nona's Gift (Nancy Paulsen Books), were published in 2011. Not bad for a storyteller who will turn 79 this September.

With all the celebrating of his Italian heritage in Strega Nona and other titles, it might be easy to forget that Tomie dePaola's other half is Irish. And it's those books that are in the spotlight this week as we approach St. Patrick's Day.

When March 17th rolls around, teachers, librarians, and parents scan the bookshelves in search of good books to share for Ireland's big day. And Tomie's books are among the best: Fin M'Coul, The Giant of Knockmany Hill (Holiday House, 1981) is a rip-snorting example of Irish folklore and witty storytelling. His Patrick, Patron Saint of Ireland (Holiday House, 1994) gives a wonderful history of the man behind the holiday, blending Irish superstition with Catholic tradition. Also not to be missed are Tomie's stories from his grandfather, the adorable Jamie O'Rourke and the Big Potato (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1997) as well as Jamie O'Rourke and the Pooka (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2002).

Question: What inspired you to tap your Irish roots and write Patrick, Patron Saint of Ireland, the Jamie O'Rourke books, and Fin M'Coul?

Tomie dePaola: When Strega Nona was chosen as a Caldecott Honor Book, my Irish American mother said to me, partly joking but ultimately serious, "OK, honey, enough with the Italian. Don't forget you're half Irish." There's nothing like a mother's "nudge" to get the creative juices going.

Irish folktales that are suitable for younger children are literally few and far between. There tends to be a lot of whiskey involved, especially in the tales I researched. (Yeats collected many such folktales.)

I found the stories of Fin M'Coul to be the most child friendly. But doing what a good storyteller is supposed to do, I was able to find funny incidents in a handful of other tales. I then created a typical Irish character directly stolen from my Irish grandfather's stories that he loved to tell me when I was a child. (My English/Irish grandmother referred to these stories as "your" grandfather's lies.)

Hence, the Jamie O'Rourke stories. I can still hear my grandfather's voice saying, "Jamie O'Rourke was the laziest man in all of Ireland."
St. Patrick was a no brainer. I was already doing the lives of saints that I found interesting, and Patrick was a prime candidate.

Q: While your Italian and Irish heritage is clear in your writing, you have also tapped into other cultures and traditions in many other books – from Adelita, A Mexican Cinderella Story to The Legend of Bluebonnet. What do you hope to accomplish with the books you write? And what do you hope young readers take away from your books?

TDP: It's natural that I'd be interested in other cultures because as a child I found out how exciting it was to be the child of two different cultures, Italian and Irish. That sent me reading everything I could of other people's worlds. That stayed with me as I grew.

The only thing I hope to accomplish with my books is to "grab" children's interest, inspire them to be excited about things, to laugh and maybe even cry. In short, to truly touch their lives.

Q: One hundred years from now when readers talk about your books, what do you hope is said about you?

TDP: I just hope 100 years from now, there are books, and mine are among them, and people, especially children, like them.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Author-Illustrator Matthew Cordell Draws on Inspiration

The hugely talented illustrator Matthew Cordell has over 18 books to his name, and more on the way, including tomorrow's release of Gone Fishing (Houghton Mifflin) by Tamera Will Wissinger. And as if that weren't enough to make you green with envy, he is one of the rare birds who can both tell a story as well as draw one, as he has done with Trouble Gum (Feiwel & Friends, 2009) and Another Brother (Feiwel & Friends, 2012). His latest example is Hello! Hello! (Hyperion, 2012), a disarmingly sweet story that just might make you put down your iPad and take notice.

Young Lydia grows frustrated with her digital gadgets, and as the rest of her family keeps tapping away, she follows a leaf out the door and into the wonderful, wide-open world. Her encounters move from a bug to a field of flowers to a menagerie of animals that gets increasingly more ridiculous and exciting. Called back home by her parents, Lydia is able to get them to put their electronica away and share in her adventure. Hello! Hello! received starred reviews from both Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly, which called it "required reading for any kid with a phone."

Question: My second-grader has been screen savvy since he could extend his pointy finger. And it has been a constant battle ever since to find the right balance between virtual play and the real-world kind. You are a parent, too. What inspired you to write Hello! Hello!?

Matthew Cordell: I got the idea for this book one day way back when my daughter was 2 years old (she’s 4 now). She and I were playing with some of her toys for a while when I was tempted to go to a nearby laptop to check email or Facebook or whatever. I didn’t think she’d even notice (she was only 2 after all). But she did. She actually said, “Daddy, stop checking email and come play.”

First of all, I didn’t even know she knew the word “email” so that was weird enough, but I was totally busted and felt totally guilty. Later, it occurred to me that this scenario must be playing out with families all the time and everywhere. Once I was made aware of it, I started to look for it, and sure enough I saw plenty of parents and kids in places like parks, restaurants, museums, ball games who were attending to devices as much as, if not more than, each other. I knew a picture book (a book that is enjoyed by both parents and children) would be a perfect place to share this story. Or… stage this intervention, if you will.

Q: A variety of recent picture books have taken a whack at our overly techie age. Hello! Hello! succeeds on its sweetness rather than any heavy-handed message or heaping helping of guilt. Was it hard to rein in your message? Or did you know right away how far you wanted to go with the idea?

MC: I do not consider myself a “finger-pointy” kind of guy. And I hope no one else thinks of me this way. I’d never even considered tackling a book with such a distinct message. But I was sure that this story would resound with others like me, and I really felt compelled to tell it. So it was important for me, from day one, not to hit people over the head with a message. I think it helps that the story is told, mostly, with just one word… “hello.” It helps that that the story is told primarily through its pictures. I think it also helps that we don’t dwell on the negative aspects of the theme. The alienation is at the beginning, and pretty brief. If, in the end, it still feels finger-pointy to some, then that’s unfortunate. But the truth of it is, I’m pointing the finger at myself as well, and that’s how this book came to be.

Q: Picture books generally connect with two audiences – young children and the adults who read to them. Who were you trying to reach with Hello! Hello!?

MC: This is one of the most compelling and most difficult things about making picture books. You must please two completely different audiences. If you lean too far in one direction or the other, you are not doing a good job of it. If one makes a book that is rich in irony or sarcasm, the kids simply will not get it. If one makes a book that is too cutesy-kid-friendly, then the grown-ups are turned off. (Although, maybe the kids are too!) It’s a razor-thin fine line that a picture book maker must walk along. Hello! Hello! is absolutely intended for both adults and children. I think it is a book for children to identify with (of course, the central character is a child) and it is a book that parents can also identify with and, I hope, enjoy reading to and with their children.

Q: You are also the illustrator of many other books – some you've written yourself, some written by other children's authors. Do you prefer wearing your author hat to wearing your illustrator one, or are they both equally satisfying?

MC: They are both equally satisfying in their own ways, but it is a very special day to me when I can both write and illustrate a book on my own. To have complete ownership over that book is like gluttonous hog heaven. There is a certain and distinct love I have when collaborating with an author, but I have only been blessed a few times to write and illustrate my own books, and I enjoy that so much.

Q: What's next from you? And what do you hope readers take away from the books you write and illustrate?

MC: This year, I have four books coming out that I’ve illustrated: Ollie and Claire (Philomel, April 2013) by Tiffany Strelitz Haber; Gone Fishing (Houghton Mifflin, March 2013) by Tamera Will Wissinger; Like Bug Juice on a Burger (Amulet, April 2013) by Julie Sternberg; and What Floats in a Moat? (Simon & Schuster, July 2013) by Lynne Berry. Nothing in 2013 (thus far, at least) that I’ve written, but definitely some stuff in works. Fingers crossed!

I hope readers will get a good sense of family in my books. Joy, angst, love, humor… ups and downs all found and experienced within the family. This feels, I guess, kind of vague, but that is really what picture books and shared reading are about to me. Sharing the intricacies and bliss (and sometimes not bliss!) of our lives together as parent and child.